Guard: Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball (hard to imagine Redick coming off the bench, but...)
Wing: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram
Big: Derrick Favors
Predicted Record: 41–41 | 18th in NBA | 11th in West
This summer, the Pelicans leveraged the desperation of the Lakers into an historical haul for Anthony Davis, a player who was likely going to leave after another wasted season anyway. In return, the Pels received a kind of Rebuild Your Team Home Kit. They got elite second draft guys in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. They got a solid, young contributor in Josh Hart. They got whatever they wanted of the Lakers’ draft assets for the foreseeable future. So, like, that was one of the summers the Pels had this summer.
This summer, the Pelicans had cap space. They used that space not to sign one elite free agent but more creatively. They used cap space to acquire Derrick Favors from the Jazz for two second-round picks (originally belonging to the Warriors). They used cap space to sign J.J. Redick (he got $26.5M over two seasons). They signed Italian forward Nicolo Melli with their room exception (since they were operating under the cap). That was another summer the Pels had this summer.
This summer, the Pelicans won the NBA Draft Lottery and acquired the first overall pick in what many experts considered a draft with exactly one future superstar: Zion Williamson. The Pelicans also got back the fourth overall pick from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade. They spun that pick into the eighth, 17th, and 35th picks (plus a future, heavily-protected first round pick). With those picks, respectively, they drafted Jaxson Hayes (incredibly athletic center), Nickeil Alexander-Walker (big guard, had a great summer league in Vegas), and Marcos Louzada Silva, a wing from Brazil. All together, the Pelicans brought in a ton of talent through the draft. That was another summer the Pels had this summer.
If you were counting, that was three (3) summers. The Pelicans acquired a ton of young talent, but they also picked up veterans who fit well together. They managed to work towards building around Jrue Holiday while also putting together a young core that can grow around Zion. They have an outside chance to make the playoffs while developing tons of talent. All things considered, there is a lot of optimism around the Pels at the moment.
That said, it is instructive to think about how we got here. After all, when this team won the 2012 lottery, it seemed like they had hit a huge jackpot in getting Anthony Davis, so even when you get a surefire superstar, the issue isn’t exactly decided. The Pelicans over the duration of AD’s career have been a case-study in rushing a rebuild. They panicked into acquiring mediocre talent, or they misread the present and mortgaged the future in service to it.
Jrue Holiday, for example, is awesome, but the assets they gave up to get him and the timing of his acquisition made the transaction, back in the summer of 2013, the first disaster. More followed. Solomon Hill. Omer Asik. E’Twaun Moore. Again and again, the Pelicans devoted major assets to players worth less than those assets. Individual moves were often more or less defensible, but in the NBA you have to maximize everything, and then you have to get lucky even beyond that.
It’s such a human problem, isn’t it? We imagine that our greatest successes are the result of our careful planning and hard work, but most of the time they had just as much to do with the whims of the wind. We try to learn from our successes, but they are just as likely to steer us wrong. See, the problem is time. We are always older, always different, always incorrect somehow, someway.
For these reasons, I find myself optimistic about the Pelicans, who had a summer steering away from conventional wisdom. They traded down from a top-5 draft pick. They resisted the urge to trade Jrue Holiday for a more extreme rebuild. They eschewed big money free agents for quality veterans like Redick and Favors. Still, it worries me that everyone seems to be praising them. They seem to have a plan, and for now it feels like a smart one, but plans are always formed in the ever-disappearing present. Could we have missed some important detail? I wonder.
Losses: *deep breath* Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson, Ray Felton, Markieff Morris.
Additions: *even deeper breath* Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala, Justin Patton, Darius Bazley.
Guard: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Wing: Terrance Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari (Maybe Andre Roberson at some point?)
Big: Steven Adams
Predicted Record: 40–42 | 19th in NBA | 12th in West
Sometimes, when a relationship ends, it comes as a relief. You see, suddenly, how bad things really were; you see the ways in which you were sleepwalking through your life, acquiescing to whatever, going through the motions. Other times, when it’s over, it crushes you. The space where you live feels like a haunted house full of sacred artifacts carrying unspeakable sadness.
I am a sentimental person. These artifacts take on so much power in my consciousness I end up putting them out of sight, which means my living space always has drawers I try not to open, boxes tucked away in closets, file folders stuffed into the back of stainless steel cabinets. Obviously, out of sight does not always mean out of mind. I’ve come to realize over the years that trying to ignore something often gives it a kind of power that is more profound and more intractable.
A few years ago, I mentioned to my therapist that I’d recently found myself fumbling through a box of things I had from an ex-girlfriend. I had been thinking about her all the time, missing her, wondering why she didn’t want to be with me, blah, blah, blah. I had this stack of sentimental items—cards, notes, little gifts, etc. I was describing to my therapist the endless sadness of these things, and she made a surprising suggestion.
“Burn it,” said my therapist. “Have a fire. Make it a little ritual.”
“Whoa,” I said. I thought about it. I had thought about throwing the stuff away, but that was impossible. In the garbage it would take on even greater power. It would be out there in the world, absolutely itself, but I’d have no access to it, no way to deal with it. Burning it was a different idea. If I burned it, it would be gone in a different way, irrevocably altered, chemically changed. It would be something else.
It took me a while to do it, but later that summer I was getting ready to move to a new town, and packing up my stuff, and as I found myself avoiding the mystical box of sad ex-girlfriend artifacts, I knew I had to do it.
And then I botched it entirely. I decided, inexplicably, to have a fire in my driveway in broad daylight. I became so self-aware and embarrassed while I was doing it that the fire I made was meager and small. Pieces of paper burned slowly and other objects just got kinda disgusting and sooty. Eventually, I managed to not necessarily burn but at least ruin everything. I remember laughing out loud. I must have looked like I was losing it.
When it was over, amazingly, I felt better. I grabbed a plastic bag and wrapped up all the leftover crap and threw it in a dumpster. The stuff was gone. Or, at least it was more gone.
The thing is, I never get over anything. I still think about her, and about everyone else for that matter, constantly. It helped to destroy the physical objects, but it didn’t solve the problem of the past entirely.
The 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder actually have a chance to be decent. That starting lineup up at the top of this page? It’s pretty good. Those pieces fit. Unfortunately, this is not really a basketball team. It’s a breakup. It is an entity in a state of loss and grief.
When you fall in love with someone, it’s all hope. Anything is possible. When it is over, you aren’t just sad about the ending, you are sad about the dashed hope. You are maybe a little embarrassed you got your hopes up. You are maybe a little ashamed that you didn’t take care of it, that it wasn’t everything it could have been. You are aware that at least some of this is your fault, which hurts, and you are also aware that at least some of it is beyond your control, which hurts and is also terrifying.
Imagine what it was like to fall in love with Russell Westbrook over these past 11 years. Will you ever meet anyone that exciting again? Will anyone ever look at you like that again?
I’m not saying Thunder fans (or Russ fans, for that matter) should burn anything. I’m not suggesting anything anyone should do. I’m only saying that this season for this team is going to be played in a different world. I don’t know exactly how many games they will win and lose, though I have my guesses. What I know is that these results will all be filtered through the experience of being in the aftermath of an ending. Sometimes, you have to lean into that. Sometimes, you lose a year when you lose a love.
Losses: Timofey Mozgov, Jerian Grant, Jarell Martin. They are…um…running it back, so to speak.
Additions: Al-Farouq Aminu. That’s kinda it. They’ve got a few guys on Exhibit-10 minimums and two-ways, but really, they just lost a bunch of guys who didn’t matter and added Aminu, who they probably don’t need. For the record, this sounds bad, but I’m actually optimistic about these guys.
Guard: D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier (maybe Markelle Fultz sneaks in?)
Wing: Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon (but both should probably be bigs?)
Big: Nikola Vucevic
Predicted Record: 39–43 | 20th in NBA | 8th in East
What we’ve got here is an exquisite corpse of a basketball team. The monster in total has no responsibility to its constituent parts. Formal chaos. Its attributes are devastating and impressive—profound size and athleticism on the one hand, off-kilter joints and seized limbs on the other. On top of its huge body sits a tiny head. What do you make of this beast? You try to address it, but it stares back at you in silence, and when it walks away, you feel a lingering sadness. To be sure, the creature was hideous, disturbing, troubling; and yet, was the creature not, come to think of it, somehow also beautiful?
Basketball teams need players with all kinds of different skills, but part of what makes the sport so interesting is that these skills mesh together in strange ways. A team needs one-on-one scoring, shooting, ball-handling, passing, rebounding, perimeter and interior defense, leaders and followers, levity and focus; unfortunately, these skills don’t come as one-offs. It doesn’t work to have one guy who can shoot, one guy who can pass, etc. A player needs to be able to do a little bit of everything, or to be so good at one thing that a team can survive that player’s shortcomings.
When I was a kid, there were a couple of summers during which I spent a week at the Wayne Embry Basketball School in Nashua, New Hampshire. I remember there was this guy, Dave Hopla, who came to do a shooting clinic each year. Hopla would lecture us while wandering around the court, always shooting. The whole time he was talking to us, he was getting up shots. He took shots from close in, shots from the midrange, shots from way out beyond the 3-point arc. At one point, he would put on a baseball hat with a cut-out of a hand hanging down from the brim; he wanted to show us that you had to learn to shoot with a hand in your face. These shots—all of them—kept going in. Over the course of an hour, he’d take hundred of shots. He’d miss, like, 10–20 of them, maybe. It was shocking when he missed. His form, his balance—everything was perfect. He was, without question, the best shooter I have seen or will ever see.
Even Dave Hopla, who is better at shooting the ball than any player who has ever been in the NBA, was never good enough at basketball to be in the NBA. Basketball, in the end, is not about individual skills; rather, it is about a kind of harmony of form. In order to leverage an elite skill, a player needs to have other skills too. Being a great shooter doesn’t mean much if you can’t guard your position, if you can’t attack a close-out, if you can’t swing the ball to an open teammate when you’re covered.
The Orlando Magic have a ton of elite skills. Nikola Vucevic is one of the best post scorers of the past decade or so. D.J. Augustin is an incredible shooter. Aaron Gordon is among the best athletes currently in the league. Mo Bamba has impossible height and reach. Al-Farouq Aminu can effectively guard pretty much every position on the floor. I could go on.
The problem is that the Magic don’t have any players who bring a complete game without any major holes. I’m a lifelong Celtics fan, and one of the great things about having Al Horford on the team was that he was good at literally everything. He shoots, but he also scores around the hoop. He passes out of the post, but he also brings the ball up the floor. He protects the rim, but he also switches out and guards on the perimeter. He’s willing to look to score, but he is also deeply unselfish. Name a thing you want a basketball player to do, and Al Horford is willing and able to do that thing. He’s not necessarily elite at any of those things, but if you can pull an A- or a B+ in all your classes, that’s a pretty good report card. The Magic, as a team, get A’s in a lot of their classes, but they get a lot of D’s and F’s too.
When it all comes together, as it did in game one of their first round playoff series against the Raptors last spring, it looks pretty sweet. When it doesn’t (games two through five), you find yourself turning away, disgusted.
What this means is that the Magic need to find a player or two who puts it all together. They need someone to tie everything together so that it makes coherent sense. They need a player who can cover for the skills his teammates lack. They need, desperately, for that player to be Jonathan Isaac.
Isaac is a wonderful prospect. At 6’10” and with great athleticism, he’s got the speed and strength to guard all over the floor, including in the paint. Offensively, much of his skillset is still theoretical, but he showed a willingness last season to bring his range out to the 3-point arc and to take shots from out there; as the season progressed, more of those shots went in. He showed enough improvement over the course of last season that further improvement seems likely. If Isaac is just a raw athlete who shows flashes of better play, the Magic should hover around .500, make the playoffs, and lose in the first round. If Isaac is more than that—if he can make the kind of leap we saw a player like Pascal Siakam make last season, for example—the Magic might be much more.
There are more holes for this team to consider, of course. D.J. Augustin should probably top out as a backup point guard, not a key cog on a playoff team; upgrading to a better point guard would totally change this team’s potential. Could they trade for Chris Paul? Could we see the version of Markelle Fultz that was an obvious first overall pick just a couple years ago? Aaron Gordon still seems to be playing out of position. Will he become a more reliable shooter? Can the team find minutes for him at center? Is he willing to alter his game to the particulars of his unique skill set? There are endless opportunities for improvement on this team because the players, while talented, have so many obvious flaws.
On the whole, none of the other stuff is as important as Isaac, who has the most potential of any prospect the Magic managed to draft over their many recent years in the lottery. Over the course of this iteration of this roster, the team will only be as special as Isaac. He’s the one person who could turn this creature into the best version of itself. It’s up to him to bring the exquisite corpse to life.
Losses: Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Glenn Robinson III, Wayne Ellington, Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia.
Additions: Tony Snell, Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, Christian Wood, Tim Frazier, Sekou Doumbouya.
Guard: Reggie Jackson (Derrick Rose?)
Wing: Luke Kennard, Tony Snell
Big: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond
Predicted Record: 38–44 | 21st in NBA | 9th in East
There are 30 NBA teams. That’s a lot! One thing you can say about the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons: they are one of those 30 teams. Miserably competent, the Pistons have been within four games of .500 in each of the previous four seasons (after a string of six seasons in which they were demonstrably worse than that). In my expert opinion, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are two of the most depressing players in the league—talented and capable of stellar moments, but generally unable to access the upper reaches of their potential selves.
For Drummond, in particular, things just never seem to break right. Prior to the Pistons’ acquisition of Blake Griffin during the 2017-18 season, Drummond was starting to become a sneakily effective playmaker, and the Pistons were having a little success running the offense through him. Blake’s presence as a far better playmaker pushed Drummond back into a lesser role, and Drummond has never managed to turn himself into the elite defender his rebounding and athleticism suggest he should be.
You can understand, of course, why the Pistons made the play for Griffin’s monumental contract. He’s a tremendous basketball player, and he has been working his ass off to evolve with the NBA over the past few years. Griffin’s elite combination of usage rate, 3-point rate, and free throw rate last season was equalled only by James Harden and Luka Doncic—basically, Griffin has fully evolved into an entirely different kind of offensive hub than he was earlier in his career. He creates shots for teammates, too. He has completely modernized his game, and while he seems like an awful fit next to Andre Drummond in 2019-20, the Pistons (per nba.com/stats) were +5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two shared the floor (as opposed to -0.3 overall).
Still, you have to wonder whether the Pistons are missing an opportunity to unlock the potential of Griffin in a Draymond Green-type role as the only big on the floor. Griffin played (per nbawowy) as the only big on the floor for just 55 minutes last season, and the Pistons were outscored 152-137 over those minutes, which doesn’t look great, but surrounded by the right kinds of defenders and deployed against the right kinds of lineups, maybe it could work? Maybe it wouldn’t, but what, exactly is at stake?
In a larger sense, the Pistons are a team in desperate need of some desperate thinking. Going .500 every year isn’t inherently bad—of course, there are teams that have been far worse—depending on what it suggests. There are occasional bright spots; for instance, they snagged a promising rookie in France’s Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th pick in this summer’s draft. In the bigger picture though, hovering around 41-41 each year means the Pistons are perpetually out of the running for truly game-changing stars. They need some stylistic inspiration. They are playing bully ball while the league is getting faster, bouncier, and more versatile, and they don’t seem to be doing this out of some contrarian (read: Spurs-ian) ethos, but rather because they are stuck in the past.
Instead of pushing towards anything new, Detroit’s big offseason splash was signing Derrick Rose, who tops out at this point, as far as I’m concerned, as a slightly worse version of Reggie Jackson. They lost Wayne Ellington and added Tony Snell. Maybe Svi Mykhailiuk pops? Maybe Thon Maker is something? Bruce Brown’s solid defense last year was a nice story. You look at all of this, and it feels endlessly boring, and instead of creating a new system around their one special player—Griffin—they’ve decided to just run it back, hope to sneak in the playoffs, and…what, exactly? Maybe they’ll luck out, somehow be better than the Orlando Magic, and get swept by the Bucks in the first round again!
The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote, “It would seem that one risks losing one’s talent in attempting to explore its infernos. But what of it? Would we not discover something else?” You get the sense, sometimes, that NBA teams are afraid of losing what they have—even when they have nothing. The Pistons are about to have another season where they are entirely average, and Blake Griffin is 30 years old. It’d be nice if they’d see if they might be able to discover something else for a while.
Guard: Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie
Wing: Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington
Big: Karl-Anthony Towns
Predicted Record: 37–45 | 22rd in NBA | 13th in West
Without looking it up, guess how old Jeff Teague is. Go ahead, guess. Okay, I’ll tell you the answer: he’s 31. Can you believe Jeff Teague is 31? When I started looking at the Timberwolves and thinking about what kind of team they might be this year, I had this moment where I was like, “Maybe Jeff Teague will be better this year?” Jeff Teague, though, is not going to be better this year. Likely, he’s going to be worse.
Jeff Teague’s general 31-ness, metonymically, is a pretty good way of thinking about the Timberwolves in general. They seem to have this wide open future ahead of them, but when you really look hard at what is happening here, it might already be all over.
The success or, more likely, failure of this team this season and beyond will depend not on Jeff Teague, of course, but on Karl-Anthony Towns and, more terrifyingly, Andrew Wiggins. A few years ago, these two had been the first overall picks in subsequent drafts, and the Timberwolves seemed to be an inevitable basketball juggernaut over the next decade. Now, Towns is a guy who constantly falls tantalizingly shy of our expectations of him (lackadaisical defense and an absence of relentlessness on offense), and Wiggins is an untradable albatross under contract for roughly $120M over the next four seasons.
Perhaps no team in the NBA currently has a wider possible range of short term and long term outcomes for their current core roster. You can squint at these Wolves and see Towns as an MVP-level hub surrounded by the varied skill sets of guys like Robert Covington, Jordan Bell, Josh Okogie, brand new lottery pick Jarrett Culver, and maybe even a miraculously revitalized (or, like, just vitalized?) version of Wiggins. That’s an interesting team, capable of playing good defense on one end and scoring in multiple ways at all levels of the floor on the other.
On the other hand, instead of squinting, you can just look at what’s here. Towns is inattentive on defense, and there are entire halves of basketball games during which it seems like he isn’t even out there. Wiggins has shown no inclination whatsoever towards any sort of winning habits on a basketball court. Robert Covington and Josh Okogie are awesome, but they are awesome role players, not primary hubs. At times during this past season at Texas Tech, Jarrett Culver was the astonishing, all-court, organizing principle for his team; at other times, he was going 5-for-16 in the title game while his teammates made endless big plays to keep them afloat.
You know how, in movies, there’s always this moment where the main character, who has been through some sort of harrowing conflict, finally thinks things are turning around, and is driving down the boulevard, good music on the stereo, improving vibes swirling in the atmosphere, and then—BAM!—gets bulldozed by oncoming traffic while pulling through an intersection? I couldn’t help but think of that kind of moment when I was listening to head coach Ryan Saunders talk about his optimism for this team on Zach Lowe’s podcast earlier this summer. I just can’t help but feel at this point that any optimism about this particular iteration of the Timberwolves is foolish. There’s a wreck on the horizon.
Ultimately, the only way out of this mess is Wiggins. Any scenario in which Wiggins continues playing listless, sad basketball for the Timberwolves is a nightmare. If they can trade him to a team that talks themselves into the mirage (remember how many teams traded for Jeff Green over the years?), that’s a possible way out. If Wiggins by some inner grace heretofore invisible manages to become a competent basketball player, that’s another way out. More likely, the Timberwolves will be late to the realization that all of the hope they thought they saw on the horizon was really just another busted ship off in the distance. Sometimes one rebuild presages another.
Losses: Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee, Taurean Prince, Justin Anderson, Omari Spellman.
Additions: Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bruno Fernando, Evan Turner. (Side note: While many folks are criticizing the Hawks for going into the season with Evan Turner as their backup point guard, I think it is a great decision. Evan Turner is going to be really good this year; you’ll see.)
Guard: Trae Young
Wing: Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter
Big: John Collins, Alex Len (my guess is that Collins ends up moving up and that Allen Crabbe or Jabari Parker ends up in the starting lineup)
Predicted Record: 33–49 | 23rd in NBA | 10th in East
Before we start, I swear to God this is going to end up being an essay about the 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks. With that in mind:
My freshman year of college at UMass Amherst was somehow both seismically life-altering and profoundly uneventful. I spent close to every waking moment in one of two places: the dining commons (at UMass, you call this “The DC”) and my dorm room. I lived with Ian, my best friend from high school. The fact that we already knew each other made our dorm a natural hangout for any friends we made. Ian and I had been friends since kindergarten, and another friend from that kindergarten class, Jake, ended up in the same dorm as us.
Ian, Jake, and I spent a lot of time in that disgusting dorm room drinking Red Dog and doing one of two things: playing cribbage and playing Mario Kart on Nintendo 64. We would listen to one of two albums: Neil Young’s Harvest and The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. Life became an endless fog of cribbage hands and time trials. In the context of these activities, it felt like we had begun to speak a new language.
I remember that sometimes when I left the room the world seemed incredibly bright to me—too bright, really. Just going to hang out in my friend Marisa’s dorm room with another group of friends felt wild and astonishing. I barely remember going to class, though I did, and my grades were good. I did no work whatsoever, but somehow became a research assistant for an English professor, and I made photocopies for him of what felt to me at the time like obscure articles about connections between science and literature. I read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I drank so much beer—just endless beer. I skated by in my weird fog, wasting the privilege of being young.
Though, come to think of it, I’ve never really felt young. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve felt like I was operating my life from a distant kind of mission control, watching my existence on a small screen. I remember, in particular, this one day during that first year of college when I decided to spend the entire day in the dining hall, and I remember feeling like, “Okay, I think I am living; I am here in the dining hall now, and now, and now.” Life was pathetic and meaningless. I look back on this period of time so fondly I can hardly breathe when I think about it. I would go back there in a second.
At some point, Mario Kart 64 became the main thing. The more we played, the better we got at it. The game had already been out for years, but I remembered having seen some contest in a friend’s copy of a Nintendo Power magazine where you could win some sort of special, golden controller if you got under a certain time on Mario Raceway. I knew the contest had been over for years already, but it seemed like a good goal. I’m sure I have these details wrong, and that I had them wrong at the time. What I remember is that Ian, Jake, and I would try to complete the course in less than 90 seconds.
And for a while, this seemed impossible. You couldn’t do it. I looked on the internet; people had done it. How had they done it? Somehow, in the year 2000, it did not occur to me to look for video. There was no YouTube; the internet was young; the only thing on the internet was a download of an mp3 of shitty bluegrass cover of “Gin and Juice.” Nevertheless, there were records of better Mario Raceway times.
Eventually, I remember my competitors falling away. I was spending more time on this activity than anyone else. Ian became interested in activism, and started going to meetings and making new friends. Jake started dating another friend of ours. More and more, I was alone. I kept playing Mario Kart. I kept racing the same course, shaving off seconds, perfecting turns and power slides, warping my sense of the physical world to imagine new pathways. The course itself was a field you could manipulate, and it began to make sense to me in pixels, as parcels of data. Everything was mostly nothing.
I shaved seconds off my time. I’d work on one thing for hours and gain, like, a tenth of a second. A hundredth. Eventually, I was under 90 seconds. Eventually, after months of this, I was under 80. I think at some point I got down to around 75. I’ll mention here that there are far better times out there; on YouTube there are videos of secrets and shortcuts I never discovered and patterns of power sliding I never considered.
What I learned from all of this is that you never know exactly what you are capable of in a given world. You never know the ways in which greater attention might alter what is possible. You never know what you might be missing, what you might have missed. You never know what you are taking on faith as impossible. I tend towards depression; I feel—and here I’m talking about right now, at the very moment in which I am writing this—impossibly lonely, and I feel that this feeling is intractable and endless. Life is brutally sad and disappointing, and yet, somehow, what I learned from Mario Kart provides some little bit of solace. You just have to keep trying, keep repeating the course, have a little faith you might see something you haven’t seen before.
Recently, Marcus Smart said the following in a quote from an article by Michael Lee in The Athletic: “A lot of people say doing the same thing over and ever and expecting different results is insanity. But for basketball players and athletes, we call that working.” When I read that quote, I thought about Mario Kart, and then I thought about Trae Young.
This iteration of the Atlanta Hawks, under the stewardship of Travis Schlenk, is being built, somewhat famously, in the image of the Steph Curry-era Warriors. Schlenk was the assistant GM in Oakland when Curry was becoming a basketball supernova, and the prevailing narrative around Trae Young is that the Hawks are hoping he is their Steph Curry. The question of what, exactly, that formulation means is a little slippery.
What is the thing about Steph? He’s the best shooter of all time. He’s able—because he’s a tremendous handler of the ball and a visionary passer—to leverage his shooting in myriad ways all over the court. He’s truly unselfish while also being alarmingly audacious; he’ll make any pass at any time, and he’ll take any shot from any spot on the court no matter who is guarding him. Basically, when Steph Curry is on the floor, the opponent is in a constant state of panic. They lose their strategic agency; they exist in a state of reaction.
Steph Curry, when you consider all of this, is without question one of the greatest basketball players ever. Entirely unique; entirely himself. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect these things of Trae Young, not because Trae Young isn’t also incredibly special, but because it is unreasonable to expect them of anyone. It was unreasonable to expect them of Steph Curry. Occasionally, someone like LeBron James comes around who is so obviously going to be great that we can pile expectations upon them and fully expect those very expectations to be summarily obliterated before our very eyes. For everyone else, greatness is a little surprising. You don’t get to see it coming.
Trae Young, for what it’s worth, might be his own thing. Last season, as a rookie, his assist percentage was over 40 and his usage percentage was over 28. No rookie in the history of the league has posted those numbers together. He also turned the ball over constantly and shot a lousy percentage on jump shots everywhere from the midrange to the far reaches of the 3-point arc. Trae Young, again, is not Steph Curry. He is a work in progress. His numbers point to the possibility of more, though. Already, at 20 years old, he was an NBA offense unto himself. Not a good one—the Hawks were 23rd in offensive efficiency last season—but not a terrible one either. The Hawks scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, but that number plummeted to a team-worst 101.9 when he sat. His team needed him. He was their engine.
I want to get back to audaciousness. During the fever dream of the pre-Kevin Durant Warriors run, I remember thinking a lot about their turnovers. They were a little careless, always. At times, it felt like a kind of Achilles’ heel, but at times, it also seemed to be their secret. They played with a kind of blind faith that made them impossible to handle. They were capable of anything, and the risk of making a few mistakes along the way was a necessary cost of their being within constant reach of transcendence.
What makes me so optimistic about Trae Young’s future—and, subsequently, the future of this version of the Hawks—is that he plays with this same sort of wild spirit. He plays basketball at the edge of basketball. What I mean is that some players are beholden to the limits of their own game moment by moment, but Trae Young is beholden to nothing but the limits of the game itself. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries, shooting from further away, slinging passes from more impossible angles, attempting to dribble through more unlikely traps. To this point in his career, there are more mistakes than you’d like. He’s fucking up a lot, wasting possessions, losing games; but he is also learning. Every mistake is a possible future success. He’s stretching his own idea of what is possible out there.
The way Trae Young plays basketball: it is a kind of insanity. In the present moment, it is often a bad idea. Even this coming season, the Hawks will lose a lot. Trae will shoot them out of games. He’ll commit too many turnovers, waste too many possessions. The Hawks will let that happen, because they are interested in what might be possible. On the Mario Raceway of the NBA, they are trying to shave off impossible seconds. They are reimagining the race itself. We can’t see from here what, exactly, they will end up being. Trae Young is in the lab, working, but he hasn’t invented that future quite yet.
Losses: Robin Lopez, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Wayne Selden.
Additions: Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet, Coby White, Daniel Gafford.
Guard: Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine
Wing: Otto Porter
Big: Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr.
Predicted Record: 30–52 | 24th in NBA | 11th in East
The 2018-19 Bulls were a tough watch. They were terrible on offense (29th); they played slow; they tried to limit transition points (they were last in offensive rebound rate). They seemed sort of joyless. They formed a leadership committee. I’ll be honest here: I did not watch a ton of Bulls games in 2018-19.
Even so, I’m intrigued by what’s here. Zach LaVine—a longtime favorite of mine—and Otto Porter make a potentially devastating wing tandem. The two only got to play 13 games together, but in them they shared the court for 29 minutes on average. During those minutes, the Bulls had an offensive rating of 116.6, which would have led the league by a good margin. Even their defensive rating of 112.1 was better than the Bulls’ season-long rating of 112.8. They also bumped their pace up in those minutes from 99.3 (20th) to 102.4 (would have been ninth over the full season).
LaVine and Porter are a clean fit. LaVine wants to have the ball, use possessions, get to the line, set guys up; Porter wants to stretch the floor and play off the ball. Porter, at least in theory, can cover for LaVine’s inattentive defense. LaVine is 24 and Porter is 26. They should be better this season.
Around them is a roster that is beginning to come into focus. The Bulls signed Thaddeus Young, who will be an excellent fit alongside either Wendell Carter or Lauri Markkanen in the frontcourt. They picked up Luke Kornet, who can stretch the floor as a 5, and drafted Daniel Gafford, who has a ton of talent and looked good in summer league. In the backcourt, they picked up Tomas Satoransky from the Wizards, they get back Denzel Valentine from a year lost to injury, they brought back Ryan Arcidiacono, and they used their lottery pick on Coby White. Kris Dunn is still here. Shaq Harrison is a decent fourth guard.
What the Bulls have is lots of shooting, lots of positional versatility, lots of possible lineup combinations. I don’t know if Jim Boylen is the coach to take this team to whatever their next level is, but for the first time in a while, I like the Bulls’ roster. They aren’t special yet—nobody on this roster leaps out at you as a potential star—but it isn’t going to be easy to play against the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls, and in comparison to recent seasons, that’s a victory.
Predicted Record: 30–52 | 25th in NBA | 14th in West
Some NBA mistakes are timeless, and this summer the Suns made a few of them:
Drafting an older player because that player seems to be more “NBA ready.” The Suns drafted Cameron Johnson, age 23, with the idea that his shooting ability will help them now. They did this last year with Mikal Bridges, too. In both cases, my guess is that they’ll eventually regret not drafting players with more long-term potential. It’s nice to get a rotation player, but drafting in the lottery is a chance to do more than that.
Trading for a veteran on the verge of a big contract when your team is still still rebuilding. They got Dario Saric and the 11th pick (they drafted Cameron Johnson) for the 6th pick (the Timberwolves took Jarrett Culver). Dario Saric is a nice player, but unless the Suns are prepared to offer him a big contract after the season, I’m not sure I understand the urgency of getting him now. It’s the kind of trade a team on the verge of contention makes; it’s the kind of trade that makes me think the Suns don’t have a realistic vision of what their team is.
Signing Aron Baynes. You shouldn’t sign Aron Baynes unless you are exactly an Aron Baynes away from competing for a title. Admittedly, the Suns also swapped a late first round pick next year (belonging to the Bucks) for the 24th pick in this draft, which they used on Ty Jerome. On the other hand, the Suns had to trade T.J. Warren—a very good offensive player on a reasonable contract—into Indiana’s cap space (giving up the 32nd pick in this draft for the privilege) in order to create the space they ended up using to take on Baynes. All together, they gave up Warren, this year’s 32nd pick, and Milwaukee’s 2020 first round pick for Baynes, Ty Jerome, and cash.
Still, while this team could have come out of this summer with a far better long-term prognosis, there is no denying that for the first time in a few years, the Suns have a competent NBA roster. More importantly, for the first time in his NBA career, we are going to get to see Ricky Rubio on a roster where he will be surrounded by players who can shoot the ball.
Rubio, to me, is the one chance this Suns team has of blasting past what all of us are expecting them to be. In every year of his career, in spite of all of the anxiety over his inability to shoot, Rubio’s team has been better with him on the court, sometimes alarmingly so:
Remember that Rubio was supposed to be a star when he arrived here from Spain. We know that he’s a tenacious defender, a great teammate, and a visionary passer. We know that in spite of the fact that he seems to be lacking so many of the skills we look for in stars in 2019, his teams have always needed him on the floor. It is at least possible that Rubio unlocks something in guys like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. It’s possible that, surrounded by better outside shooters, Rubio, at age 28 and ostensibly in the prime of his career, has the most optimal NBA roster he’s ever had.
The thing I love most about basketball is that we never exactly know how it works. Certain combinations of players succeed or fail, and we try to use those successes and failures as templates for the future, but usually we’re at least a little off. The mysterious synergy that makes a great team great is always unpredictable. Consider, for example, the way the Warriors launched into the stratosphere when David Lee got hurt and they were forced to play Draymond Green. Consider the stylistic improbability of the entire Ben Wallace Era in Detroit last decade.
The Suns are a joke; it’s true. Look no further than the goats in the previous GM’s office. Nevertheless, the Suns have been drafting near the top of the draft for long enough that this roster has potential. Ayton could be special. Booker is, without question, an elite offensive player. This season looks to me like Ricky Rubio’s last chance of finding himself in the NBA. I’m rooting like hell for that to happen.
Losses: Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Sam Dekker, Jeff Green, Chasson Randle. My hot take here is that Sato is the only one who matters.
Additions: C.J. Miles, Davis Bertans, Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, Rui Hachimura, Admiral Schofield, and the contracts they took off the Lakers after the Lakers screwed up the salary cap mechanics on the Anthony Davis trade: Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, and Jemerrio Jones.
Guard: Ish Smith, Bradley Beal
Wing: Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura
Big: Thomas Bryant (possibly Davis Bertans at the 4 or 5?)
Predicted Record: 29–53 | 26th in NBA | 12th in East
There was a brief moment somewhere along the way where I remember saying out loud that John Wall was my favorite player in the NBA. At his peak, he surged through the game electrically, and sometime around 2015-16 that electricity started to flow out of him like laser beams. He was, for a little while, one of those special superstars who sees plays happening before everyone else, and he had, for a little while, the athleticism to leverage the advantages his mind was giving him. He was a wonderful basketball player.
That’s all over now, it seems. There may be a second act for Wall, but his litany of injuries—culminating in a ruptured Achilles tendon (it happened at home, where he was already missing significant time recovering from surgery to remove bone spurs from his left heel)—will have likely sapped much of his electricity by the time he plays basketball again. If he misses this entire season, he’ll be 30 when that happens.
Everything in that last paragraph is why the supermax extension he signed in July of 2017—it just kicked in this summer—is at this very moment the least team-friendly contract in the NBA. There’s a cliche in the NBA that there’s no such thing as an untradable contract, but John Wall is going to opt in to a $47.4M team option for the 2022-23 season. That’s happening. Even if the Wizards tether him to a reasonably-paid star like Bradley Beal, it’s hard to imagine any other team seeing that combination as a smart way of team-building.
All of this is pretty bleak for the Wizards, and that bleakness makes the Wizards kind of interesting to me. When there’s no hope, you have to find hope; that’s how hope works. When the Nets were the most depressing team in the NBA, they wormed themselves out of it by scouring the league for interesting second draft types (they hit on D’Angelo Russell), using their cap space to pick up assets in exchange for taking on bad contracts, and evaluating talent well. The Wizards have an opportunity to find their own wormhole out of this nightmare.
And for all the bleakness, the Wizards have Bradley Beal, who turned 26 this summer and last season posted career bests in usage rate, assist rate, rebound rate, steal rate, and block rate while leading the league in minutes. In a 30-team league, the Wizards have one of the 15-20 best players. Would you rather be a Wizards fan or a Hornets fan right now?
Consider the following:
In C.J. Miles, Davis Bertans, and Ian Mahinmi, the Wizards have $31M in expiring salary they can send out in a deal after December 15th. That’s enough to bring back a star on a max contract should one become available.
They have all their first round picks moving forward.
They are smartly dipping their toes into the world of distressed and undervalued assets, picking up Isaiah Thomas on the cheap and taking a flier on Mo Wagner and friends from the Lakers.
You look at it all, and maybe it doesn’t seem so bad. After years of terrible, short-sighted decisions under Ernie Grunfeld, it appears that the Wizards are beginning to be sensible. Yes, things will be rough in the standings for a little while, but there are fun players on this team. In the NBA, you don’t generally get to plateau. You are either climbing or falling. After years of falling, my read on this is that the Wizards are climbing, and they’ve packed well, and I’ve heard there are good views up there, and look at that sky; it’s actually a pretty nice day.
“We are only what we are; not what we would be; nor every thing we hope for.”
Herman Melville in Mardi, 1849
“For tho’ we know what we ought to be; & what it would be very sweet & beautiful to be; yet we can’t be it.”
Herman Melville in a letter to Sophia Hawthorne, January 8th, 1852
Losses: DeAndre Jordan, Lance Thomas, Mario Hezonja, Emmanuel Mudiay, Luke Kornet, and a few other guys I’m not going to bother with here.
Additions: They drafted R.J. Barrett and Iggy Brazdeikis. They signed Julius Randle, who might be a great get for them. They picked up Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock, who can shoot it. They picked up Elfrid Payton. They also picked up a bunch of power forwards that they will most likely trade over the course of the next year or so: Marcus Morris, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson.
Guard: Dennis Smith Jr.
Wing: R.J. Barrett, Kevin Knox
Big: Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson
Predicted Record: 25–57 | 27th in NBA | 13th in East
Herman Melville was born in New York City, and he died there—just a block down East 26th St. from the site of the first two Madison Square Garden locations—72 years later. Over the course of his life, in spite of—or, perhaps, because of—his prodigious talent, he was a commercial failure as a writer. His life is an endless procession of bursts of genius followed by misunderstandings, failure, disappointment, you name it.
Melville’s history of passionate obsession, enormous expectations, and dashed hopes feels somehow Knicksian to me. And yet Melville managed to quietly recede into himself, spending the last 30 years of his life writing poems and working as a customs official in New York City (where he had a reputation as an honest man amidst a great deal of corruption). There might be a small victory in this, considering the above quotes. There is something to be gained, perhaps, in coming to terms with whatever it is we are.
The failures of the Knicks over the past 20 years can in many cases be attributed to a comical lack of self-awareness. The terrible decisions of the Knicks can almost always be traced back to deeply delusional readings of the state of the franchise in a given moment. We don’t need to litigate those decisions here; suffice it to say that the events of this offseason have been more of the same.
Beneath the delusions, you can start to see the vague forms of a competent plan. The Knicks did, after all, engage in a rebuild, finally, after years of buckling under the idiotic conventional wisdom that said Knicks fans would never embrace a rebuild. They have a clean cap sheet, and are now stocked with a roster of decent, tradeable players who don’t fit together in the context of actual basketball games. I could go on.
I won’t though, because it doesn’t matter. The Knicks are owned by James Dolan, and they will be a misguided and delusional mess of a franchise until that changes. It’s hard to read the events of this summer—KD and Kyrie choosing the Nets first and foremost among them—as anything but an indictment of Dolan. Why would you want to play for that guy? In what universe could you convince yourself that your interests appear anywhere in the cosmic map of shit he cares about?
Herman Melville died at the end of September in 1891. A few months later, Dr. James Naismith invented the sport of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts. I like to think that Melville would have liked basketball, that he would have appreciated the intricate teamwork at play and the constant movement. He was sad New York office worker who for the last, long stretch of his life went home at the end of the day and wrote poems. Poor bastard would have definitely been a Knicks fan.